I STEAL A MATCHBOOK FROM MARILYN MONROE
THAT ARTHUR MILLER? WHO KNEW?
It’s 1961. I’m only 18, but my black deeds are mounting. I win an $800 scholarship for high scores on the State Board of Regents exams. I tell my parents I’ll use it for text books and a new typewriter, but my secret plan is to cash the check and run off to Europe where I intend to sport a beret, seduce French girls and write the Great American Novel. I see myself, standing alone on a windswept deck, while my sobbing mother reads my terse note of farewell.
I smoke marijuana and drink cheap wine every night, curing the morning malaise with a cherry Coke and an egg salad sandwich. My father tells me I look like a raccoon. To cover I make up symptoms–back pain, insomnia, nausea. My mother plies me with cod liver oil and chicken soup–I draw the line at an enema.
I am an erection in search of a home. Candidates can be of any age. Breasts are the main attraction. But I can be driven crazy by thighs swishing through a tight skirt.
I am an eclectic lecher. I nurse a frenzied fantasy for one of my buxom aunts. Somehow she senses it and won’t give me her usual wet kiss when she comes to visit. Occasionally, I am transfixed by the swinging buttocks of police horses.
NY State won’t send the scholarship check until the winner has completed at least one semester with a 3.0. Every morning I wrestle torpor and lose in freshman survey courses at Brooklyn College. In the afternoon I go to the Riverside Memorial Chapel across from Prospect Park where I defame the dead, the bereaved and the faith of my forebears.
NY State law requires all undertakers to serve an apprenticeship. My colleagues are young men whose families own small funeral homes. They are Italian and Irish and Riverside is a Jewish funeral parlor so the night manager, Tom Mammana, gives them Jewish aliases. Celiberti becomes “Krieger;” Aiello is “Altman;” McCadden answers to “Morris.”
But these names are too tame. The boys make up their own burlesque versions, calling to each other across a lobby crowded with mourners…”Mr. Shmatler, will you please take these people to the Gladstein room…” “Mr. Krapinsky, could you please direct these people…” “Be right there Mr. Plotzstein…” And then run into an alcove red-faced with suppressed laughter.
Still, there is some sacrilege not even these pranksters will commit. They’ll wear skull caps, but won’t say the short prayer for the dead. Because I am the only real Jew I’m elected. On Sundays funerals begin at nine-thirty and go non-stop in fifteen minute intervals until three-thirty. I stand in the family room off the chapel keeping an appropriately grave face as Shmatler, Plotzstein and Krapinsky try to crack me up. They lurk out of sight in the wings of the chapel, making faces, obscene gestures, even dropping their pants. I stare at them stony and unmoved. Before the ceremony I recite a short prayer, which the immediate family repeats after me. Then I rend their garments with a razor blade and lead them into the main chapel, requesting the mourners to “please rise,” and then “be seated.”
The families often misunderstand my simple instructions. “Please repeat after me,” I say to one man. “I’m going to cut your tie…”
“I’m going to cut your tie,” he blubbers.
“No, just the prayer,” I say.
“Just the prayer,” he repeats.
“No the Hebrew part…”
“Say the prayer already,” someone interrupts. “He’s only the brother-in-law.”
I begin the prayer…”Baruch atah adonai..”
Aiello/Plotzstein enters at the proper funereal pace. I know what he’s going to do and steel myself.
“Eloheinu melech haolam…”
As Aiello passes he turns to me and opens his mouth. Out pops a lit cigarette. He swallows it and walks on. I bite hard on my lip and finish the prayer.
“Dayan ha emet…”
Most funeral are models of decorum, but there are occasional outbursts, which test my impassivity.
A widow looks down at her husband.
“Harry, how many times did I tell you: Nobody buys pencils. Paper Mate ball points Harry…”
And is cut off by an anguished cry. “Let Daddy rest, Mama, you’ll sell the pencils…”
For weeks after that we greet each other with “Paper Mate ball points, Harry,” and answer in helpless mirth: “we’ll sell the pencils, Esther…”
One night I drink a bottle of Romilar Cough Syrup. An hour later I am whirling, aimless in the cosmos. Space winds howl in my ear. I try to open my eyes, but they have been locked shut. Then I realize:
I’M GOING TO HELL!
God is punishing me for my lies to my parents, my petty larcenies and perverted lusts– my disrespect for the dead. I cling to the slimy walls of my sanity, thinking: this isn’t real, this isn’t happening. But the deceased fly by me in their shrouds, their hospital gowns, their sad pajamas. The fat lady I threw onto the stretcher. The old man with the camp tattoos on his arm. Chalk white, blue veins protruding, crabbed fingers pointing.
Somehow I am on the cool tile of my parents’ bathroom. Then under a hot shower. The same God who is sending me to hell has also provided cherry Cokes and egg salad, heavy on the mayo. I am given another chance. Henceforth, I will be truthful, honest and respectful.
But mere days later I am in an Orthodox burial shroud stuffing myself with Italian sausage.
“MARILYN FUCKIN’ MONROE” is coming to the Miller funeral.
We grab the “first call sheet.” The deceased is Augusta…Next of kin, husband Isidore, daughter Joan, son Arthur…
“Arthur Miller, the playwright,” I say.
“Debts of a Salesman…”
” They’re separated,” Sconzo, the day manager says.
The office is now crowded. No one is out on the floor directing the mourners. It’s anarchy. People wandering into the wrong reposing rooms. Looking in the caskets: and running out:
“That’s not my Uncle Max.”
Sconzo has been on the phone with Marilyn’s secretary. “She says Marilyn is still very close to the family,” he says. “She wants to come and express her condolences, but she doesn’t want to cause a commotion.” He takes a dramatic pause. “She asked if it would be possible for someone to meet her at the door and take her to the family room? Then, escort her to a private place where she can watch the service without drawing attention…Then, back to her car…” Another pause. “I told her it could be arranged…”
The room explodes.
Who’s gonna meet her?
“Me, who else?” says Sconzo.
Suddenly, everybody’s a communist.
“Just ’cause you’re the boss?”
“You don’t have no special privileges…”
“We have just as much rights as you do…”
“What’d we fight the war for?”
“Okay, okay,” Sconzo says with a gleam, as if he had it planned all along. “We’ll do it the democratic way.”
NEXT: I BUY A TOE TAG FOR MARILYN